The government should step in and pay for all remedial costs to replace cladding on high-rise apartments.
That is the call from the Society of Licensed Conveyancers (SLC), which says thousands of owners are facing bankruptcy and contemplating suicide over the issue.
The Grenfell fire tragedy has left leaseholders in affected flats unable to move or sell – and the SLC says emergency action is needed.
It is estimated that at least 500,000 people live in high rise buildings where major work is necessary to make the properties safe.
The SLC says if the government does not step in, the value of all flats in high-rise bocks could be blighted for years to come.
In a letter to Housing Secretary Michael Gove, SLC board member and past chairman John Clay says the remedial costs could be claimed back from the developers who are “responsible for the current mess”.
Fire tests predicted disaster
Mr Clay points out that fire tests carried out in 2004 predicted a disaster – 13 years before the Grenfell tragedy – but the government of the day failed to take action.
“At least 500,000 flats are considered too dangerous to live in and are unsaleable. Yet it is deemed acceptable to leave, what are often vulnerable people, to carry on living under these conditions,” he says.
“The government has committed to building 300,000 new homes every year – surely the priority must be to make existing homes safe?”
He adds that the housing department has not previously taken the situation seriously enough “in so far as those directly affected do not have any choice but to continue to live in apartments. Many of which have no value whatsoever.”
Private prosecutions “unrealistic”
In a further statement, the SLC says suggestions by politicians that the building owner should “take action against anyone responsible for dangerous cladding” are “deeply flawed”.
The society points out that once all the flats have been sold, ownership is “virtual” – and until the leases run out, the freeholder effectively only owns the land a block stands on.
Furthermore, it says prosecution of developers by leaseholders is unrealistic, as any such cases would be complex, involving huge legal costs.
The statement continues: “If insufficient help is given, thousands (probably hundreds of thousands) of leaseholders will have to forfeit their flats to their freeholder or their lender.
“The majority of these leaseholders are not people with huge savings and in their current situation borrowing money is impossible. Most have invested everything to get on the property ladder.
“A recent survey showed many leaseholders are suffering from severe depression and 23% are seriously contemplating suicide.
“When so much of the current conversation is about levelling up, this cannot be right.”